Hue and cry over the UCU

Critics of Israel are increasingly accused of delegitimising Israel and encouraging antisemitism. This creates a climate of suspicion in which the onus is on critics to somehow demonstrate that they are not antisemitic.
Richard Kuper
1 June 2011

The latest to be called on to prove its bona fides in the UK is the University and College Union (UCU). UCU describes itself as, ‘ the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK’. If you are to believe recent bloggers it has moved definitively beyond the pale. For the UCU Executive has put a motion to its 2011 Congress asking it to endorse the view that a particular ‘working definition of antisemitism’, published on the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) website in 2005, confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus. It called for the union to dissociate itself from it. On May 30, the motion was passed overwhelmingly.

Judging from the responses, you’d think this motion was a crime against reason itself as well as downright antisemitism. Eve Garrard, in calling for academics to leave the union, wrote that it is “trying to change the definition of anti-Semitism in order to maintain a policy which discriminates against Jews”. Mark Gardner of the CST (the Community Security Trust which “provides physical security, training and advice for the protection of British Jews” particularly in “the fight against antisemitism and terrorism) accuses the UCU of seeking to ignore “a ‘working definition’ that it should naturally want to use “if it cared about its Jewish members”. David Hirsh of Engage argued that the only way the UCU can avoid the charge of antisemitism “is to change the definition … so that they fall outside of it”. And on 26 May, representatives of the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews presented “this motion as another example of entrenched institutional racism inside UCU”.

It is all so much nonsense. The motion is about “a working definition” but for some of the critics above it has become simply “the definition”. It makes you wonder what happened before “the definition” was propagated in 2005 (when presumably no-one had a clue as to what antisemitism was, and without this particular document no-one now would have either). As I show below, this ‘working definition’ is a bad one that has led to endless, unproductive argument. Opposing its use does not mean one is opposed to fighting antisemitism, or happy to tolerate it. It is simply to point out that this definition does not help in that struggle; on the contrary, it sows confusion. It can only be understood in the context of a quite different agenda, that of a propaganda campaign by Israel and its supporters against the country’s deteriorating public image. (For a recent, humorous take on this hasbara campaign see Larry Derner’s “Rattling the Cage” column Tips for Information Warriors in the Jerusalem Post, March 2, 2011.)

The dissemination of the draft “working definition” of antisemitism in 2005 has proven particularly effective in this wider propaganda campaign. Always in draft, never formally adopted, it is not up for discussion by those who could change it. Yet it is increasingly presented today as the definition of antisemitism. It cannot bear this weight. It is being used, rather, in ideological battles on campuses to demonise robust criticism of Israel. This conflation, as the UCU motion suggests “confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism” and makes the task of identifying genuine antisemitism and fighting it harder, not easier.

Let us look more closely at both the definition and its history. It came about in 2004 after the EUMC had published its valuable and sophisticated report, ‘Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002 – 2003’. As well as providing extensive discussion on debates about antisemitism, this document highlighted the need for an operational definition, ‘in line with the theoretical arguments’ in the report, to provide a common standard for data collection across the EU.

Eventually, the EUMC posted what was called a “Working Definition of Antisemitism” on its website. But this definition was not “in line with the theoretical arguments” in the report. Indeed, those experts cited in the original report who distinguished sharply between antisemitism and legitimate opposition to Israel were not included in its drafting. Instead, a document was produced behind closed doors after a consultation with Kenneth Stern of the American Jewish Committee and others (see Stern, ‘Proposal for a Redefinition of Antisemitism’ and Michael Whine, Two Steps Forward, One Step back). This new document changes the whole tenor of how criticism of Israel is viewed.

Let’s look at the document itself. It is unclear whether ‘working definition’ means the whole document (which fills a single A4 sheet) or just this paragraph which is in bold italics and preceded by the phrase, “Working definition”: 

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. 

If this is indeed the definition, it is so vague as to be useless as a practical tool. If the entire document is intended - headed ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’ - then it is not only unwieldy but also untrue to the original report which clearly differentiates political criticism of Israel from antisemitism. The document leans towards conflating them. Following the quoted paragraph, it continues: “In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” This single sentence has dominated the way the “working definition” is read. 

The use of “could”, here and later in the document, is loaded. Following six relatively unproblematic examples of antisemitism, the document again focuses on Israel and lists five ways in which antisemitism “could’ be manifested, which are both confused and tendentious. The text says that “the overall context” should be taken into account. Yet, regardless of context, one of the examples – “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism” – could hardly be anything but antisemitic. The other four examples, grouped around this one, are clearly tainted by association, the suggestion being that they could be anti-semitic, “just like the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism”.

In reality they can and often have been contested on grounds that have nothing to do with antisemitism.

Take, for instance, the example of “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”. This could be antisemitic. Equally, denying that same right to Basques, Catalans, Scots or indeed the Zulu or Afrikaner nations/peoples, could be racist. But there are all kinds of non-racist reasons why someone might not support these national causes. The right to national self-determination is after all not the primordial right.

And even if it were, it should surely be possible to question whether “the Jewish people” are a people in the secular-nationalist as opposed to the religious sense of the word (as the Israeli author Shlomo Sand has done most forcefully in his recent book The Invention of the Jewish People). And even if they have a right to national self-determination would there be a right to exercise it in the whole of Palestine, as Zionism historically demanded? What about a Palestinian right to national self-determination? Would denying that the Palestinians had this right as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did most forcefully after the 1967 war by denying that the Palestinians were a people, be the equivalent of antisemitism towards the Palestinians? Is the right of self-determination one that can be exercised by transferring others out of the territory in question (as would have been the case if the Bosnian Serbs had been accorded this right)? These are all legitimate questions which should not be censored by threats of antisemitic accusations.

Or consider another of the examples of what ‘might be’ antisemitic: ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’. Of course this is wrong. It could be antisemitic. But no-one makes this accusation when Zionists routinely conflate Jews collectively with Israel. Indeed it is hard to have a discussion about Zionism without this notion coming up positively, expressed clearly in the idea of Israel as the Jewish state, acting on behalf of all Jews. Prime Minister Netanyahu was explicit about this only last week when he addressed Congress on 24 May: “I speak on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state when I say to you, representatives of America, thank you.”

The document is riddled with problems; which perhaps is why, contrary to what the European Forum on Antisemitism claims, the ‘working definition’ was not adopted by the EUMC. As Beate Winkler, EUMC Director, said at the time, it “should be viewed as ‘work in progress’ … with a view to redrafting”. To this day, the url of the document on the web includes the word “draft” in the title.

In fact, the document appears to be dead in the water as far as the Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), the successor body to the EUMC, is concerned. They recently told me that feedback on initial testing of the document ‘drew attention to a number of issues which impacted on its effectiveness as a data collection support tool.’ In other words, it wasn’t useful. “Since its development we are not aware of any public authority in the EU that applies it,” the FRA official added. Moreover, “The FRA has no plans for any further development of the ‘working definition’.” (24 August 2010)

The latest FRA publication on the topic - its Working Paper Anti-Semitism: Summary overview of the situation in the European Union 2001-2009 (April 2010) does not even mention the “working definition”. It does complain (p.3) that: “Even where data exist they are not comparable, since they are collected using different definitions and methodologies.” That was precisely the reason why an operational definition was called for in the first place. The “working definition” clearly does not provide this.

None of this has stopped the perversely named “EUMC working definition” from taking on a life of its own. The European Forum on Antisemitism has translated it into no fewer than 30 languages; in the United Kingdom an All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Antisemitism endorsed it uncritically (Sept 2006 – see Rosemary Bechler’s lengthy critique ), as did the National Union of Students (March 2007, reaffirmed in 2010). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights adopted the definition as a guide. The US State Department’s 2008 report, Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism regards it “as a useful framework”. Careless bloggers now refer to it simply as the ‘EU definition’ – the latest being Eve Garrard.

What is quite clear in all these contributions and debates about antisemitism is that it is only what is said about Israel that excites and agitates. There does not seem to be sustained disagreement in any other area as to what constitutes antisemitism or about the need to combat it. But references to Israel in the “working definition” are, say its supporters, merely examples of things that “could, taking into account the overall context” be antisemitic. In principle, yes. But as I hope I’ve shown, the presumption inherent in how the document is drafted is that they are likely to be antisemitic; and in the rhetorical use of the document, like the recognition that it is no more than a draft, these qualifications have all but disappeared in practice.

This will no doubt meet with the approval of Kenneth Stern and his colleagues since in their original argument which the ‘working definition’ follows closely, the qualifiers,(“could, taking into account the overall context”) were not present at all! (See reprint in the second essay in a Tel Aviv University publication). In it, antisemitism with regard to discussions about Israel is ever-present. Someone at the EUMC saved the organisation from considerable embarrassment by insisting that qualifications be inserted, changing the word “are” to “could, taking into account the overall context” be antisemitic. In other words for Kenneth Stern and his colleagues the link between criticism of Israel and antisemitism is much closer than in the final document, highlighting the original presumption that criticism of Israel on certain topics, no matter how carefully reasoned, was likely to be antisemitic by definition; and to put the onus on critics of Israel to prove their innocence on this matter.

In short: the EUMC working definition has little to do with fighting antisemitism and a lot to do with waging a propaganda war against critics of Israel. It is time it was buried and the UCU decision to take it on is hopefully a step in that direction. The fight against antisemitism should not be muddied by those who confuse criticism of Israeli violations of human rights and international law with hatred of Jews. It is clearly no such thing.


This essay is based on an earlier paper, 'Anti-semitism and Delegitimation' published by JNews on February 22,2011

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData